After demo sessions in 1979 turned sour, long-serving vocalist Jon Anderson departed from Yes after a decade of performing as both frontman and songwriter. Keyboard player Rick Wakeman departed at the same time, thus leaving the band without two of their key members. They filled the void with vocalist producer Trevor Horn and keyboard player Geoff Downes who, at that time, were both members of pop duo Buggles. The new Yes line up of Horn (vocals), Downes (keys), Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums) clicked, but the resulting album – ‘Drama’ (released in August 1980) – is a release which polarises fans.
After a brief fade in, the listening audience are introduced to the revamped Yes in a rather unsubtle way. ‘Machine Messiah’ begins with a doom-laden riff, perhaps the heaviest riff in the Yes catalogue at this time. Steve Howe plays various guitar parts, multilayered in the studio; his slightly unsettling, semi-aggressive vibrato leads mesh well with the main riff. There’s nothing light and airy, or indeed, other-worldly here; this is Yes at their most direct, with an uncharacteristic anger in their playing – a whole world away from the wandering self indulgence which filled their albums only a few years earlier. After the riffing subsides, we hear the first vocal notes – and, of course, this is a huge moment – a grand reveal of something unfamiliar: imagine spinning this for the first time back in the summer of 1980… How would Trevor Horn sound fronting Yes?
Would he sound suitable? Yes.
Would Yes sound different without Jon Anderson? Yes.
Would Yes sound radically different without Jon Anderson? No.
Backed by Squire and Howe, the first vocals on ‘Drama’ soon put the listener at ease. Horn’s range may not be as broad as Anderson’s but his general pitch appears perfectly suited to Yes here, especially when backed by a somewhat playful, galloping bassline from Squire. Lyrically, it’s also rather heavy with its themes of technology and the unknown. While the lyrics were written by Trevor Horn, they have a wordiness which is very in keeping with classic Yes. Howe moves from the earlier metallic riffing and reverts to a more typical jazz-prog-rock hybrid of playing and before long, Yes begin to sound like “classic Yes” again. Geoff Downes isn’t given much of a role, providing a few backing lines (which cheekily lapse into Widor’s ‘Symphony For Organ No 5’ on occasion). His main lead consists of a really horrid sounding solo, which he performs in a call-response style with Squire’s bass (which is faultless, as always). With that, the main riff crawls back in and, after a brief vocal from Horn, the track appears to come to an end. This would be a natural place for it to end, but Yes being Yes, they eke it out for another verse and another three and a half minutes, and Howe gets to deliver a particularly unsubtle guitar solo. While this tune certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, a trim wouldn’t hurt. [It’s also worth noting that ‘Machine Messiah’s overall length was the band’s response to fans’ fears that those Buggles chaps would push Yes into a more commercial direction. If those fans were apprehensive in 1980 about changes Horn and Downes could make, they possibly had a heart attack over the AOR/radio friendly qualities present over 90% of 1983’s ‘90125’].
‘Man In a White Car’ is one of the shortest tracks in the Yes catalogue. It opens with a string fanfare, delivered in pompy style by Downes’s keyboard, which is augmented by Alan White’s military sounding drum fill. The lyric only spans a few lines, as Horn tells of man in the white car, who “takes his dreams and then drives them away”; these lines he sings gently over a softer keyboard line, and just as you think the tune will break into something, it stops. Perhaps, in retrospect, this short piece (inspired by a sighting of Gary Numan and the car he’d been given by his record company) would’ve be better suited to Buggles, but placed here, it provides a pleasant interlude between the colossal ‘Machine Messiah’ and fairly hefty ‘Does It Really Happen’.
Having a few hard rock tendencies in places, ‘Does It Really Happen’ is nowhere near as indulgent as ‘Machine Messiah’, but even so it still sounds very much like Yes. As with much of ‘Drama’, Chris Squire’s bass playing is the dominant force at first, and his rolling Geddy Lee style intro really sets the mood for the piece. Over the rolling bass, Alan White brings the rest of the band into play with a roll round the toms. The verses settle into a solid 4/4 groove with White’s drumming remaining solid, but the chorus has a far more progressive feel. Against an off-kilter rhythm, Downes’s keyboard work is among his most distinctive. The vocals – featuring, in part, Chris Squire on lead -are sharp; while they lack any of Jon Anderson’s soaring, ethereal qualities, they still sound fantastic and definitely fit the mood of the piece well. The closing section of ‘Does It Really Happen’ kicks off with a simple, yet distinctive keyboard riff from Downes; stylistically it owes a great deal to the style favoured by Vangelis in the mid-late 70s (whom at this point coincidentally had embarked on a musical partnership with Jon Anderson). That riff doesn’t stand on its own for too long, as Squire pushes himself to the fore fairly quickly, complimenting that keyboard riff with a chugging bass. Alan White provides plenty of backbone returning to his 4/4 rhythm from earlier and, in all, this presents a couple of minutes of Yes as a straight up, hard rock rock band. While relatively simple, the music still comes with a slight quirk – in this case, it’s provided by a keyboard overdub mimicking a marimba.
Opening the second side, ‘Into The Lens’ is a number which Horn and Downes had been working on for their second Buggles album prior to their appointment in Yes. The bones of the then unfinished Buggles song ‘I Am A Camera’ are taken and subsequently embellished with lots of prog moments. While this was never the original intention for the Horn/Downes work originally, the finished piece is undoubtedly ‘Drama’s best. A pulsing bass leads things off before White and Downes offer a great staccato riff. Steve Howe lays a few guitar lines over the top, but his old-school, vibrato-led sound doesn’t make much impact over the hard rhythm. With that, it’s into the main part of the song (the Buggles-written part) and over the slightly lighter music, Horn’s vocals are wonderful. By the time he’s joined by Squire’s bass, ‘Into The Lens’ offers the album’s most well-rounded and accessible performance. Over the course of the next couple of minutes, the listener experiences the rare gift of the Buggles’ brilliant pop song writing augmented by a real band of musicians. After the first two verses, Squire chimes in with another angry bass riff – which he rattles out with Downes playing a similar part on the keyboard simultaneously. By the time Yes find their way back to the original song again, it’s slightly harder than first time around, with Howe overlaying a few guitar lines…which don’t really fit as smoothly as perhaps they should. By this point, it’s clear that in 1980 it’s really not the Buggles which seem out of place in Yes – it’s actually Steve Howe. His guitar work, more often than not, seems at odds with the music the rest of the band have created, and since ‘Drama’ features little to no acoustic parts (always Howe’s forte), most of the time, he’s just not at his best here.
Listening to the ‘Into The Lens’, it’s easy to spot the bits Horn and Downes had written for Buggles and which bits were worked out with Yes at a later date. And while the musicianship is great throughout, it’s the Buggles’ song-oriented moments which make it truly magical. [Upon leaving Yes in 1981, Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes resumed their Buggles work. Their original arrangements found a home as ‘I Am A Camera’ once again on the Buggles’ second album ‘Adventures In Modern Recording’].
‘Run Through The Light’ has a very disjointed arrangement. Above occasionally tinkling keys, Trevor Horn’s soaring vocal is spot on, but looking beyond that, the arrangement a little scrappy: Squire occasionally chips in with a bendy bass note or two, Howe hits a couple of unconnected long notes while Alan White punctuates the sounds with a hard-hitting snare drum. The chorus is far more fluid, with an element of pop; vocal harmonies are the main focus here, though Howe’s slightly flat tone dwarfs Horn’s arguably superior delivery. The backbeat is fuller, fleshed out by an odd, clavichord style funkiness. After the second chorus (by which time Squire seems to adopt more space within the musical framework) it’s time for Howe’s guitar solo. For a man so highly regarded, his playing here is an angular, somewhat atonal mess. By the time of the last verse, Horn’s lovely vocal line shares the spotlight with Squire and Howe. Squire’s staccato basslines are fine, but Howe continues to meander in a way which lacks any real purpose. Easily ‘Drama’s weak track, it contains a couple of great musical ideas, but no real overall coherence.
Opening with a hard rhythmic chord, ‘Tempus Fugit’ closes the album with the then-new Yes in a slightly aggressive mood. During a fantastic intro, Chris Squire delivers an upfront bassline and the band break into a white reggae pattern (not too far removed from the sound of the first couple of albums by The Police). Following a brief interlude with a vocoder, Squire plays a hard, busy bassline. If there were any doubt about his being one of the world’s finest bassists, his playing here should be proof enough. His playing shows no sign of abatement even once Horn starts to sing. Horn and Squire perform a hugely wordy vocal for the verse, which is made all the more spiky by Squire’s bass style. For the chorus sections, the vocoder from the intro reappears; its voice calling ‘yes, yes’ now seems more than a little smug, but it doesn’t detract from the overall brilliance of this rather punchy closing statement. Since Squire, Howe and drummer Alan White are on such great form throughout, it’s a shame that their flow is broken by a couple of sections featuring Steve Howe’s lead guitar. His noodling guitar sounds (not very subtle here) really let the side down. While rhythmically the band are pushing towards a new wave-ish sound, Howe stays firmly rooted in the mid 70s with his jazzy fills, barely disguised by reverb. The band even breaks into a completely different tune in order to accommodate his (not especially interesting) contributions. Thankfully, it’s never long before they return to the main riff, allowing Squire to pick up that fantastic bassline where he left off.
Yes entered the new decade very much the underdogs: the punks and the press had written them off as dinosaurs, while the band themselves had lost two vital members. With this in mind, some people will tell you that ‘Drama’ is a fitting title for a forced sounding album, but that’s just being snobbish about an Anderson/Wakeman free Yes. Parts of ‘Into The Lens’ and ‘Tempus Fugit’, in particular, capture the band sounding as vibrant as they had on the lauded ‘Going For The One’; Trevor Horn’s vocal performances are faultless throughout, especially faced with the rather difficult task of replacing Jon Anderson. ‘Drama’ is a mostly great record: it’s more focused than ‘Relayer’, far more interesting than ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ and more energised than its predecessor ‘Tomarto’. It’s about time more people gave it the love and respect it deserves.